When I first viewed Phil Whitman’s painting, “Ned Drawing in my Office,” I knew that I wanted to interview him. The sense of intense concentration on the child’s face drew me in completely and made me curious about the artist behind the portrait.
Whitman is chairman of the art department at Castleton University. Born in Saratoga Springs, raised in Glens Falls, both in New York, and educated at Bowdoin College in Maine, Rhode Island School of Design and Skidmore, New England has always been home base. On visits to a grandmother in North Carolina, the family often stopped at Gettysburg, Pennsylvania, to walk the famed battlefield that marked the turning point of the Civil War. This childhood interest in Revolutionary and Civil War history has continued to influence Whitman’s artistic expression.
The intensity of focus on Whitman’s chosen subject matter is the central strength in his work. The viewer is brought into close contact with the person or scene that is depicted. The paintings are multi-faceted, like complexly cut gems that continue to entice, the closer one looks. This is especially true of some of the smaller works that are doubly intriguing because of the amount of extreme detail on a condensed picture plane.
Recipient of prestigious fellowships and residencies at Skowhegan School of Painting and Sculpture; the Fine Arts Work Center in Provincetown, Massachusetts; Mid-Atlantic Arts Foundation; and the Millay Colony for the Arts, Whitman continues his dedicated painting practice in Poultney.
A brief stint at the Julie Saul Gallery in New York convinced him that he wanted to return to his New England roots. He became a curator at the Sullivan Museum at Norwich University, the nation’s oldest military college. This was a perfect match for his interest in military history and in 2011, during the 150th anniversary of the Civil War, he curated a series of exhibits about Norwich alumni involved in the War. While at Norwich, Whitman began teaching part-time at Castleton University and is now associate professor there.
Whitman’s interest in history and love of sharing his expertise with students makes him a natural teacher. I’d like to give Whitman the opportunity to share some of his personal evolution with readers.
B.A.: Your paintings look as if you come from a background of classical training — were you always interested in figuration?
P.W.: I’m not sure I’d call it a “classical training.” I was always interested in art, and though I initially studied history in college, I eventually double-majored in visual arts as well. I went on to study painting at the Rhode Island School of Design, but there wasn’t much “instruction” in painting technique. I have always been interested in figuration. I think a lot of this dates back to my childhood. I loved books about the Civil War and military history, and those images impacted me a lot.
I have also always really loved the fine detail in late Medieval and early Renaissance paintings, especially Northern Renaissance panel paintings. So, I think that my use of the egg tempera technique from that time is connected to that slow building of detail that I like.
B.A.: I’m very struck by your son’s absorption in “Ned Drawing in my Office.” I’m curious if it’s a bit of a self-portrait. Were you an artist as a child? What is it like seeing your son(s) engage in artistic expression?
P.W.: My wife Kristen and I have two sons, who are now 8 and 10. They both make drawings that continually surprise and impress me. I’m happy that you read a bit of a self-portrait into that painting! I can’t say I intended it as such, but I think there’s always an element of that in my work.
There’s also a constant element of me looking back at my own past and my own history — including the way I continue to bring my childhood interests into my current work. So I can see the connections between depicting my kids and depicting my former self. I do recognize my own “artistic” absorption in that particular painting. Ned tilts his head at the same angle that I do when he is focused on drawing.
In the background of that painting of Ned in my office there is another image on the wall. It is a painting of a car seat that I made when he was a baby, so there’s a bit of a story of his own growth in there as well.
B.A.: Could you speak a bit to how you became involved in art — something of your journey?
P.W.: I mentioned this a little bit above. I was always interested in making things as a child. My family went to historical sites and battlefields and museums, and I think I was really struck by what I saw. The exhibition and presentation of art and artifacts has always interested me almost as much as the “pieces” themselves. So I was always drawing as a kid, pictures of Revolutionary War and Civil War battles, but eventually comic book characters and whatever else I was into at the time. I was always “good” at art and was aware that I had skills that other people didn’t seem to have, but didn’t think about it much beyond my own enjoyment.
I went to Bowdoin College in Maine, and had the good fortune to work with Mark Wethli, who still runs the art department there. He helped me a lot, including getting me set up with an internship at the Center for Maine Contemporary Art. We traveled all over Maine visiting studios and organizing shows, and this is where I really became aware of and interested in Modern and Contemporary art. I loved the research and design of exhibitions, but also interacting with the artists.
B.A.: You have a whole series on Devil’s Den, at Gettysburg. Did you visit there as a child? If so, what did you think of it then? And why are you so interested in it now?
P.W.: When I was young, we used to drive down South to visit my grandmother. Gettysburg, Pennsylvania, was about half way, so we would often stop there. I’m not sure if that inspired my interest in the Civil War, or if we stopped there because I was interested in the Civil War, but in either case I loved the Gettysburg battlefield (and have continued to visit it throughout my life). In fact, the way the landscape is annotated with signs and statues probably impacted me more than anything. I still love “significant” landscapes and return to this theme a lot in my work.
Anyway, on the southern part of the Gettysburg Battlefield is a specific slice of landscape that always awed me: Big Round Top, Little Round Top and Devil’s Den. Devil’s Den is an outcropping of huge rocks, which are naturally impressive but combined with the history of the fighting there — and that name! — it proved pretty irresistible to me as a kid. It’s always been in the back of my mind as a special place — that combined “national” history with more personal “family” history.
I eventually collected a trove of photos that visitors took at that spot. I always thought of Devil’s Den as “my” place, and it was kind of jarring to see so many people posing and “touring” there. The hundreds of photos became the installation, “Our Folk Den,” first installed at the Fine Arts Center in Provincetown, Massachusetts. I created a diorama of Devil’s Den by cross-referencing these photos. I also selected some of the photos, especially of one particular “hanging” rock in Devil’s Den where people pretend to lift it, and began to re-draw and paint these.
B.A.: Your dioramas are fascinating. What inspired you to begin working in a sculptural mode?
P.W.: I think the dioramas are something that also came out of visiting battlefields, especially Saratoga battlefield when I was a kid. I loved the three-dimensional versions of small-scale figures set in miniature landscapes that mirrored the “real” landscape just outside. I collected and painted toy soldiers my whole life.
A lot of my “artistic” training actually came from painting model figures and creating dioramas. I did this all through high school and college. I eventually started using the same techniques that I used in making military history dioramas, but then changed the “subject” matter somewhat to make them more idiosyncratic and personal. I even made some papier-mâché figures around 24 inches high and installed them in outdoor settings.
B.A.: All of your work has an intimacy that fascinates me. Each painting or diorama seems to be deeply felt. Could you speak to what inspires your creative process?
P.W.: I’m glad that comes across. I think the idea of “miniatures” (whether that be dioramas or Medieval miniature painting) might be key. (I kind of just made that connection because of your insightful questions!) A lot of detail at a small scale requires a certain intensity and focus in the making, but it also requires an intimate experience for the viewer. Maybe this is part of it? It is a relatively private communication that I share through art. Basically, I make things that I want to see exist.
B.A.: What is the relationship between your work and your teaching? What do you like best about teaching at Castleton?
P.W.: I feel very, very fortunate that I am able to teach at Castleton. I owe so much to Jon Scott and Bill Ramage for giving me this opportunity. I was pretty dissatisfied with working at a commercial art gallery, and I realized at a certain point that I didn’t really have the drive or hunger to be a full-time professional artist. I liked interacting with students when I worked at the Norwich Museum — it allowed me to indulge in a lot of things I loved, research, writing, design but also communicating stories with students, and watching them get interested and excited about things.
At Castleton, I’m able to do this in both studio courses and art history classes, as well as the general education program and first-year seminar program. This is really special, and not something I would be able to do at a bigger school where one would need to specialize. I love showing students how art can not only encompass all of their varied interests, but it also gives them the opportunity to “curate” and create their own reflections of their experiences, in real time, to integrate and make sense of where they are and where they want to go.
B.A.: I was really struck by your talking about working on your kitchen table during the pandemic. Could you tell us a bit about how this came about and how it has affected your work?
P.W: During the pandemic, Castleton went remote — and so I was working from home, along with my wife Kristen (who is an elementary educator) and my two sons. We basically lived and worked and learned in the shared space of our house for a year (like everyone else).
So I wanted to continue making paintings — but I needed something small-scale and easy to start and stop, like I mentioned above. Drawing with colored pencils and my kids’ crayons and doing egg-tempera painting on small panels was something that I could literally do on the kitchen table in the midst of family life.
So in a way, I guess this imbues the scenes of personal history with an aura of authenticity. This seems more “real” than making huge banner-scaled paintings like I used to, when I could work in a big studio by myself for hours.